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More how-to guides for life
Sunday, July 11, 2004
How to's for life A monthly guide

By Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett,
Special to The Seattle Times

When anyone of a Certain Age renews a driver's license, there should be two requirements:

(1) Pass the eye test without cheating;

(2) Show proof that you've started writing your memoirs.

The preservation of your memories, or those of your elders, is a wonderful pastime. And, no, not just for the writerly or famous among us. Even modest scribblings are precious gifts to later generations, both family and strangers. Historians, after all, rely heavily on the recollections of regular folks to flesh out one-dimensional facts and figures of the past. Writing memoirs can also be a way to relive past joys and dispatch old demons.

"Every family has stories that help to root and define that family, to tell us who we are and where we came from," said Seattle novelist Laura Kalpakian, who teaches literary fiction and memoir writing at University of Washington Extension. "To write a memoir, even just sort of stringing these stories together, helps the writer — and the reader — to understand the past, to put it in some kind of context and give it meaning."

The best thing about memoir is its malleable nature. No rule says it must be in a particular form. It can be written as an essay, poem or letter. Your memoir might be text accompanying photographs, drawings, maps or other ephemera.

Some particularly effective recollections are not first-person works at all, but one writer's thoughts on a time, place or person who moved them. In painting these portraits, the writer also tells us more than a little about himself, as E.B. White did in these lines about the late John F. Kennedy, written for The New Yorker when White was in his 60s.

"When we think of him, he is without a hat, standing in the wind and weather. He was impatient of topcoats and hats, preferring to be exposed, and he was young enough and tough enough to confront and to enjoy the cold and the wind of these times ... "

Whether you are writing down your own memories, or using these tips to interview someone else, here are three things to remember:

Think small. Focus on a specific time, place or detail. You can always add to your first thoughts, but trying to capture too much at the beginning is overwhelming. "Think of life as a sequence of snapshots and pick one to start," advises Oregon writer Sandra Scofield, novelist and author of "Occasions of Sin: A Memoir." "Then you can think: What happened just before? Just after? Start with those images; the rules you learned in your family, the objects and rooms and streets and foods. Think of one day that mattered, start there."

Even if you've told the story (or heard it) a million times, write it down. There's a reason that a story gets told over and over: It's a good one. "Stories can be told, yes, but once written down, they have their own charm and vivacity," said Kalpakian.

Getting it on paper is what counts. Stephen Koch, who taught writers at Columbia and Princeton for more than 20 years, wisely wrote, "There is no need to wait for inspiration; no need to find your confidence," the key with your writing project is "to begin, and begin right now." That means writing in the form that comes most naturally to you. If your memoir looks like a grocery list or a letter, that's fine.


Name a place that was important to you: The empty lot where you played baseball, your first office, a garden, the coffee shop frequented during your Beat Poet period. Add detail: What did you use to mark home plate? What color was that peeling wallpaper? If the coffee shop smelled like scorched java and incense, write that down.


Life lessons: Think back to those driving lessons with your dad; the first Thanksgiving dinner you made on your own; learning to read, ski, knit, type. Who taught you? How did it feel to land that small plane for the first time?

The company you kept: Some of the most successful memoirs start out to be stories of others, the people (and pets) we loved, the ones who broke our hearts, and — this is a big one — the ones we should have thanked, but never did. It doesn't take long for the authors to bring these stories back around to themselves.

Capturing detail: Physical details, recollected sounds and colors, small mannerisms and expressions of speech will make these memories come to life: the professor's perpetually askew bow ties; the tap-tap of your toddler's first shoes back and forth on the linoleum floor; Grandma's quirky Southernisms, like "Get in here for dinner, right quick!"

Clothed in history: What was your most memorable outfit? Where did you get it? This is a wonderful memory producer; no one who did military service will forget the uniforms, and any woman who has lived long enough to see platform shoes come back three times has plenty to say.

Past purchases: Historians know that nothing evokes the past like a bottom line. How much did that first summer job pay? What did your first house cost? Given the trajectory of tuition prices, your kids and grandkids may never grasp what it means to actually pay for college with a part-time job — unless you tell them.


An encouraging word: A common self-defeating thought is "Why should I write this stuff down? Who cares about my life?" Professional writers are quick to dispatch such unworthy thoughts. "First of all, so what if no one wants to? It's still a valuable thing to do," said Scofield. "Nobody thinks a lousy golfer is wasting his time by not being in the PGA."

Reflecting on your life is a way to "absorb your own history in a whole new way," said Scofield. "Then you'll discover that local historical societies and cultural archives value personal histories. Your family will be amazed, especially the young ones."

She offers this final bit of advice: "Approach writing as an experience all on its own. Make a place, a time for it. Say a prayer or ring a bell or close a door. Say, 'I'm writing! I'm thinking about life, grateful that I have the time and the memory and the wits to do it.' "


Among the many guides intended to inspire and educate writers, are these helpful books:

"Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir," edited by William Zinsser. Selections were originally talks given at the New York Public Library by Annie Dillard, Toni Morrison, Russell Baker, Alfred Kazin and Lewis Thomas (Mariner Books, 1998).

"The Modern Library Writer's Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction," by Stephen Koch (Modern Library, 2003). This terrific book, while directed at fiction writers, will inspire anyone setting out to write.

"Living to Tell the Tale: A Guide to Writing Memoir" by Joan Taylor McDonnell (Penguin, 1998). An accessible, intelligent book for beginners.

"Legacy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Personal History," by Linda Spence (Ohio University Press, 1997). This slim volume is packed with lists of thought-provoking questions to get a memoir writer or interviewer off and running.

Inspiring bedside reading while you write your memoirs:

"The Memoir Club" by Laura Kalpakian (St. Martin's Press, 2004), a finely detailed novel set in a UW memoir-writing class, and "Occasions of Sin: A Memoir, (W.W. Norton, 2004) Sandra Scofield's moving recollection of her childhood and her mother's life.

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